A campaign to combat underage drinking has been condemned by activist organisations for depicting rape survivors in a guilty light.
The "You Decide" campaign is jointly sponsored by the department of trade and industry, SABMiller and the National Youth Development Agency.
One of the billboards shows a barely-clad young woman curled up on the ground, with the tagline ‘Underage drinking: is it worth it? You decide.”
The campaign feature teenage girls in the main and use the ominous outcome of falling victim to rape to deter underage drinking.
Michelle Solomon, media liaison for the rape survivor solidarity organisation Silent Protest, complained that the campaign implies that teenage rape survivors brought the rape on themselves by drinking.
“The campaign is nothing less than victim blaming,” she said. “The only logical inference from the tagline of ‘You Decide’ is that the rape was your fault and you shouldn’t have been there.”
Solomon feels this is symptomatic of an unsupportive attitude towards rape survivors in a country where rape is rampant. “South Africa has an ambivalent attitude to rape. On the one hand they are outraged at rapists and call them grotesque monsters and on the other we fall short when it comes to helping rape survivors to deal with their trauma,” she said.
When it comes to seeking help, teenagers are far less likely to approach the authorities than adults, according to Solomon. “Research shows that people most discriminated against by the police and medical practitioners are teenage rape survivors. This discourages teenage rape survivors from getting the help they need,” she said.
And the depiction of teenagers in the campaigns may decrease the trust between them and adults, at times when healthy engagement is sorely needed.
“Teenagers are consistently depicted as making poor choices – the assumption is always that they are not capable of making positive, mature choices,” said Gita Dennen, department head of Childline’s community awareness and prevention programme in Gauteng.
“This increases adults’ perception that this is true, and teens’ perception that adults don’t trust them. With this divide being exacerbated, teens are less likely to consult their caregivers when they are trying to make a decision.
"The other problem while they are presented as consistently making poor choices, they are also depicted as being fully responsible, in other words, blameable. Teenagers are children, and may make errors of judgment Teenagers need to be seen as vulnerable, and the media should be encouraging adults to adopt a caring, nurturing, mentoring stance, rather than one of judge and jury.”
The sponsors of the campaign highlighted the scourge of underage drinking and the urgent need to change destructive behaviours.
SABMiller head of media and communications Robyn Chalmers said on Monday: “The South African Breweries believes that underage drinking is one of the most serious forms of alcohol abuse in South Africa …Teens who drink are more likely to become victims of violent crime, are at risk of not succeeding at school and could say or do things that they cannot take back."
"At no point does the campaign seek to apportion blame, and we are deeply concerned that it may have been misinterpreted. We will seek to engage with the people who have raised concerns to ensure they understand the aim and focus of the campaign."
Bongani Lukhele, media relations officer for the department of trade and industry said on Tuesday: “It has ... emerged in the recent study undertaken that most youth is initiated to drinking at a very early age and that the most vulnerable are those between the ages of 12 to 19."
Lukhele denied there was any intention to paint rape survivors in a bad light. “What is important about the depiction was the vulnerability that teenagers put themselves in when they over indulge. The depictions were not in any way intended to say that rape occurs when victims are intoxicated."
When it comes to educational campaigns that encourage behavioural change, the scare tactic is one often used. For Jen Thorpe, the editor of Feminist SA, the threat of rape as a deterrent to unlawful drinking seems to be a trend among advertisers. In 2011, Brandhouse launched a "Drive Dry" campaign that featured a man raped in prison after being jailed for drunk driving.
But the downside, according to Thorpe, is "a failure to understand the intense trauma that comes with rape".
The concerns of underage drinking in South Africa were echoed by Adrian Botha, director of the Industry Association for Alcohol Abuse (ARA). He said the ARA faced the challenge of making behavioural change campaigns relatable when designing them. “We found that the adverts had to make people say, ‘Oh my god, that could be me,’” he said.
“There is no denying that teenage drinking in South Africa, as in other countries, is a serious concern.”
In 2009, the ARA launched its “What is one more drink?” campaign that focussed on the ways that the irresponsible drinking habits of adults impacted on their children’s drinking behaviour. Botha considered this campaign a relative success.
“We found that some of our previous campaigns that showed, for example, a young girl getting into the wrong car were less effective. The ‘One More Drink’ campaign had a more positive response because nobody was completely drunk and it showed more normal drinking patterns.”